All Souls College, Oxford. Image credit: Bill Tyne
A bright sixth form student from a small village in the South Wales Valleys is sat at his desk at home preparing his personal statements for his university applications. On a piece of paper next to his desk he has a note which lists the four Russell Group universities which he has applied to. At the bottom of the page is the word ‘Oxbridge’ with a cross through it.
Although this student has been told by friends that he is the next Stephen Fry, he doesn’t have the confidence to apply to Oxbridge because he can’t imagine himself swishing in his cape into the archaic stone buildings or punting on a Saturday afternoon.
Oxford and Cambridge universities, collectively known as Oxbridge have experienced a decline in applications from Welsh students in the last 10 years.
In April BBC Wales uncovered that the number of comprehensive pupils getting into Oxbridge has fallen from 96 in 2008 to 76 in 2012. The Welsh Government has taken steps to resolve this by appointing an Oxbridge Ambassador, Paul Murphy, MP for Tofaen in May 2013.
Paul Murphy MP is passionate about encouraging young people in Wales to apply to Oxbridge. Image credit: paulmurphymp.co.uk
His job is to find out why applications to Oxbridge have dropped in Wales and to try to encourage more people to apply. Paul says, “Some students feel that they would not get into Oxbridge if they applied. It’s my job to encourage more youngsters to think about applying.”
In April Paul released a report which outlined that there is a stigma attached to Oxbridge in Wales. In his eyes many students in Wales see Oxbridge as an elitist institution where public school types enjoy debates in exclusive clubs such as The Bullingdon Club.
Welsh students see Oxbridge as out of their comfort zone. Those who are academically capable fear the rejection from institutions frequented by prime ministers and do not apply. It’s this attitude that Paul Murphy aims to defeat through his campaign.
Mary McGarry, a Cathays councillor, said: “My son tried for Oxford but did not get in (after interview). This was 10 years ago but I think there may still be a little prejudice against Welsh students by the universities themselves.”
The Welsh Government outlined in May that school standards in Wales need to be improved. In a Liberal Democrats debate on school standards, Suzy Davies, a Welsh Conservative Assembly Member for South Wales West said: “While Oxbridge is not the be all and end all, of course, it did point to a consequence of our current provision for education. For an exceptional talent to be held back by mediocre education is just as much a source of shame as is a socially deprived child being held back by mediocre education.”
Paul Murphy with a student at an event at Michaelstone Community College in Ely. Image credit: paulmurphymp.co.uk
Paul suggests that school standards can be improved by encouraging teachers to instil confidence in pupils who are thinking of applying to Oxbridge. The campaign has set out to make the academically capable aware that Oxbridge is within their reach. Paul has visited schools across Wales, giving speeches about how he, a coalminer’s son from Abersychan, went to Oxford.
One Sixth Form College that is encouraging Welsh students to apply to Oxbridge is Gower College Swansea where they run the only HE+ (higher education) programme in Wales which coaches students for the Oxbridge application. Paul uses Gower as an example of what all Welsh schools should aim towards.
Gorseinon College in Swansea runs the HE+ programme in conjunction with Gower college. Sophie Jones, 24, who was a sixth former at Gorseinon College in 2008 and ended up going to Cambridge says, “Gorseinon has a really great higher education programme, it really took away the stigma surrounding Oxbridge. The programme explained to me how I could get into Oxbridge and set up trips to Oxford and Cambridge.”
“Welsh pupils are of equal ability to those from any other region and should be successful with their Oxbridge entries”
Public officials can also encourage students in their constituencies to apply to Oxbridge if capable. Jim Murphy, an Ely councillor said, “Everyone should have the same opportunity if they are intelligent. If need be I would get involved in this campaign and encourage people in my constituency to apply to Oxbridge.”
David Walker, councillor for Lisvane thinks that there is a pressing need to work on students’ confidence in order for them to reach their full potential. He said, “There is a specific technical input needed as well as building confidence and giving personal encouragement. Welsh pupils are of equal ability to those from any other region and should be successful with their Oxbridge entries.”
NUS Wales’ president, Stephanie Lloyd has stated that she thinks that it’s important that the Welsh government investigates why there has been a decline in Welsh students applying to Oxbridge because then we can become closer to understanding how students’ perceptions influence their choice of university. She added, “If we get education right in schools and colleges, and then the student support system right, then we will truly have a world class education system that works for everyone in Wales.”
With the development of this campaign, it looks more likely that applications from Wales will soar in the next few years, meaning that Welsh students are closer to walking through those historic colleges in their formal gowns.